THE SHORT HAPPY LIFE OF DENNIS MACALISTER
(A translation of Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”)
At lunchtime they were all sitting under the flap of the dining tent, behaving as if nothing had happened.
“Do you want white or red wine?” MacAlister asked.
“I’ll have the Chablis,” Sergio Gonzales told him.
“I’ll have a Chablis too,” MacAlister’s companion said.
“Let’s make it simple,” MacAlister agreed. “I’ll tell the boy to bring the Chablis.”
The cook’s assistant had already removed two bottles from the icy water of the plastic cooler and was toweling them off with a dirty rag that he had pulled from the hip pocket of his jeans.
“How much should we tip them, at the end?” MacAlister asked.
“Fifty bucks would be plenty,” Gonzales told him. “You don’t want to spoil them.”
“Will the driver distribute it?”
Dennis MacAlister had, half an hour before, been welcomed back to camp by the cook and his crew, after he and the other two members of his safari had witnessed their first lion kill. But MacAlister had barely acknowledged them as he stepped down from the dusty Land Rover and hurried into the tent. He sat on the bed until his companion came in. D.J. did not speak to him
when he came in, and MacAlister got up at once and went outside to the camp’s shower building to sponge off the day’s accumulation of dust. After he had washed his hands and face in cold water that trickled into the cracked basin, he went outside to sit at the picnic table in the dining tent.
“We got our photos of a kill,” Gonzales said to him, “and real film, not digital.”
D.J. looked at Gonzales. D.J. was handsome, and confident in the way that aspiring actors often are, though the only success he had enjoyed was a print campaign for a now-defunct line of men’s sportswear, and were it not for the indulgence and patronage of Dennis MacAlister he would no doubt be forced to seek gainful employment. D.J. and Dennis MacAlister had been lovers for three years.
“He was an awesome lion, wasn’t he?” MacAlister said. D.J. looked at him now. He looked at both men as though he had never seen them before.
One, Gonzales, a news commentator from a New York television station, he had never seen before. He was heavy, about middle height with black wavy hair, a moustache, which might be concealing a harelip, a tanned face and penetrating black eyes with faint white wrinkles at the corners that grooved mischievously when he spoke. He smiled at the handsome boy now, and D.J. looked away from his face to the way his shoulders sloped in the loose white shirt he wore with the embroidered crest on the pocket, at his big brown hands, his old khaki pants, his scuffed and worn deck shoes and back to his face again. D.J. noticed where the dark tan of his face stopped in a lighter shade that marked the circle left by his broad-brimmed, felt hat that rested next to his elbow on the picnic table.
“Well, here’s to our first kill,” Sergio Gonzales said. He smiled at D.J. again and, not smiling, D.J. looked at his lover.
Dennis MacAlister was tall and lean, well-built if you didn’t prefer gym-cultivated muscularity, his thick, blond hair graying at the temples, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome. He was dressed in more traditional safari clothes, and his brown hiking boots were new. Dennis MacAlister was forty-five years old, kept himself fit through a diet of fish and chicken, was good at word games, had made money in real estate, and had just shown himself, very publicly to be a wimp. “Here’s to the kill,” he said. “I’ll bet you got some great shots.”
“Can we stop talking about the kill,” D.J said. Gonzales looked over at him now without smiling, but now D.J. smiled at him. “It’s been a freaky day,” D.J. said. “Hadn’t you ought to wear your hat more? You told me that you know.”
“I’ll wear it this afternoon,” said Gonzales.
“You know you have a very red face, Sergio,” D.J. told him and smiled again.
“Booze,” said Gonzales.
“I don’t think so,” said D.J. “Dennis drinks a lot, but his face is never red.”
“It’s red today.” MacAlister tried a joke.
“No,” said D.J., “it’s mine that’s red today, but Mr. Gonzales’s is always red.
“What do you say we drop the subject of my beauty,” said Gonzales.
“I’ve just started on it,” D.J. said.”
“Let’s drop it,” said Gonzales.
“It’ll be hard to find something else to talk about,” D.J. said.
“Don’t be rude, D.J.,” MacAlister said.
“No problem,” Gonzales said. “We’re seeing all the animals and we’ve already got great shots of a kill.
D.J. looked at them both, and they saw that he was going to have a fit of anger. Gonzales had seen it coming for a long time and he dreaded it. MacAlister was past dreading it.
I wish we hadn’t met up with you. I wish we hadn’t fucking met you,” D.J. said and started for the tent. He made no noise but they could see that his shoulders were flexed and rigid in the in faded blue tank top that he wore.
“He’s young,” said Gonzales. “Amounts to nothing. Strain of jet-lag and the strange climate.”
“No, said MacAlister. “I’ll hear about it for the rest of the trip now.”
“Bullshit. Let’s have another glass of wine. Forget the whole thing. Nothing to it anyway.”
“I’ll try,” said MacAlister. “I won’t forget your sticking up for me though.”
“Nothing,” said Gonzales. “Probably the heat or the climate contributed to it.”
They sat in the shade under a wide-topped acacia tree, where the camp was pitched on the rim of the crater with a rocky-strewn plain behind them, and a stretch of grass that ran to the edge of the crater in front, and drank their wine and avoided one another’s eyes while the boys set the table for lunch. Gonzales could tell that the boys all knew about it now and when he saw Zach, the driver, looking curiously at MacAlister while he was putting dishes on the table he snapped at him that they needed another bottle. Zach turned away with his face blank.
“What was that all about? MacAlister asked.
“Nothing. I don’t want him forgetting that we’re paying $200 each a day for their services. Money they understand. In the days of the hunting safaris, the clients often whipped them.”
“It was illegal,” Gonzales said. “They were allowed to fine them. Personally I’d have preferred the whipping. And I think the natives did too.”
“Barbaric,” said MacAlister.
“Not barbaric, really,” Gonzales said. “Which would you rather do? Take a beating or lose your pay?” Then he felt embarrassed at asking and before MacAlister could answer, he went on, “We all take a beating every day, one way or another.”
This was no better. Jesus, he thought. I’m a hell of a diplomat.
“Yeah, we take a beating,” said MacAlister, still not looking at him. “I’m sorry about that lion business. It doesn’t have to go any further, does it? I mean, no one will hear about it?”
“You mean will I do a Channel Two editorial?” Gonzales looked at him now coldly. He hadn’t expected this. So he’s a pussy and a hypocrite. He had rather liked him until today. But how is one to know about these queers.
“No,” said Gonzales. “I’m a newsman. I’m interested in the news. And, besides we don’t even know the same people. You’re only making it worse the more you whine about it though.”
He had decided now that a clean break would be much easier. He would eat, then, by himself and could read a book with his meals. They would eat by themselves. He would finish the safari with them on a formal basis. Meeting them in the Arusha travel office had been a chance encounter anyway. Traveling in a group of three made the safari more affordable. He would be cordial, but not friendly. It would be a hell of a lot easier than this emotional bullshit. He’d insult him and make a clean break. Then he could read a book with his meals and still save money on the remainder of the safari. He’d drink their liquor too.
“I’m sorry,” MacAlister said and looked at him with his California face that would stay youthful-looking until it became old, and Gonzales noted his perfectly-groomed hair, fine eyes only faintly shifty, good nose, thin lips, and handsome jaw. “I’m sorry I should have realized that. Sometimes I don’t know when to shut up.”
So what could he do, Gonzales thought. He was ready to break it off and here the guy apologized after he had just insulted him. He made one more attempt. “Don’t worry about me talking,” he said. “Africa is still a dangerous place.”
“I acted like a wuss,” MacAlister said.
Now what in the hell were you going to do a guy who talked like that, Gonzales wondered.
He looked at MacAlister with his flat, black broadcaster’s eyes and the man smiled back at him. He had a pleasant face if you did not notice how his eyes misted when he was hurt.
“I’ll be fine from now on. We’re after a black rhino next, aren’t we?”
“Tomorrow morning, according to Zach,” Gonzales told him. Perhaps he had been wrong. This was certainly the way to take it. You couldn’t tell about these L.A. types. He was liking MacAlister again. If you could forget the morning. But of course you couldn’t. The morning had been about as bad as they come.
“Here comes the kid,” he said. He was walking over from his tent looking rested and happy and, yes, sexy. He had a perfect angular face, so perfect you expected him to be stupid. But he wasn’t stupid, Gonzales thought, no, not stupid.
“How is the rugged red-faced Mr. Gonzales? Are you feeling better Dennis, my love?”
“Much,” said MacAlister.
“I’ve forgotten the whole thing,” D.J. said, sitting down at the table. “Who cares whether Dennis has the stomach for blood and guts. That’s not him. That’s Mr. Gonzales’s thing. Mr. Gonzales likes to see things die. You probably would enjoy shooting the lion with a gun, wouldn’t you?”
“Absolutely,” said Gonzales. “I’d love to kill a lion.” These guys are, he thought, the hardest in the world; the hardest, most opportunistic, most predatory and the most seductive and their victims soften and go to pieces nervously as they harden. Or is it that they pick men they can handle? They can’t know much at the age they latch onto them, he thought. He was grateful that he had gone through his education with prostitutes before now. It was after all the same damned thing with these oppressive young fags, and this was a very attractive one, fastening on to some older, insecure homo.
“We’re going after rhinos in the morning,” he told him.
“You’re on,” said D.J. “I’m in charge of our camera.”
“No, you’re not,” said MacAlister.
“Oh, yes, I am, Dennis.”
“I’m the photographer,” he said to him. “You’re responsible for the guide book.”
“Right, so you can fall to pieces again and we have to get copies of Sergio’s pictures.”
When D.J. had left, Gonzales was thinking, when he had gone off in anger, he seemed loyal. He seemed to understand, to be hurt for his friend and for himself and to know how things really stood. He’s away twenty minutes and now he’s back enameled in attitude. These West Hollywood boys are just plain hustlers.
“It’ll be another great show tomorrow. In living color and 3-D. We’re in Africa,” Dennis MacAlister said.
“Let’s leave him in camp,” Gonzales said.
“You’re an asshole,” D.J. told him. “I want to see you perform again tomorrow. You were incredible this morning, balancing your expensive camera equipment and your cocaine.”
“Here’s the lunch,” said Gonzales. “You’re very witty, aren’t you?”
“Why not? I didn’t come out here to be dull.”
“Well, it hasn’t been dull,” Gonzales said. He could see the tall grass blowing at the crater edge and the clouds, pregnant with rain, hovering above the crater in the distance and he remembered the morning.
“Oh, no,” D.J. said. “It’s been fabulous. And tomorrow. You don’t know how I look forward to tomorrow.”
“This spaghetti is good,” Gonzales said.
“The meat sauce is tasty,” said MacAlister.
“It’s probably eland or something,” said D.J. “They’re the cowy things that jump like rabbits, aren’t they?”
“I guess that describes them,” Gonzales said.
“Did you get pictures of them, Dennis?” D.J. asked.
“Are they dangerous?”
“Only if they fall on you,” Gonzales told him.
“I’m so glad.”
“Why not let up on the bitchiness just a little, D.J.,” MacAlister said twirling the spaghetti around the tines of his fork.
“I suppose I could, since you put it so politely.”
“Tonight we’ll have champagne for our kill,” Gonzales said. “It’s a little too hot at noon.”
“Oh, the lion,” D.J. said. “I’d forgotten the lion!”
So, Sergio Gonzales thought to himself, he is giving him a ride, isn’t he? Or do you suppose that’s his idea of putting up a good front? How should a guy act when he discovers his partner is a weak-kneed pussy? That boy’s an arrogant prick, but they’re all pricks. They call the shots and to call the shots one has to be a prick sometimes.
“More spaghetti?” he said to D.J.
That afternoon, late, Gonzales and MacAlister went out in the Land Rover with Zach the driver. D.J. stayed in the camp. It was too hot to go out, he said, and he was going early in the morning. As they drove off Gonzales saw him standing under the big tree looking ruggedly masculine rather than pretty with his tank top off and his khaki shorts rolled up and his dark hair in loose curls on his forehead, his face as virile and fresh, he thought, as though he were on some beer photoshoot. D.J. waved to them as the car went off through the mud of camp and into the high grass and curved around through the trees into the low hills of orchard bush.
In the bush they found a herd of impala, and both men reached for their backpacks to retrieve their cameras and began taking pictures in a flurry before the herd bounded wildly off, leaping over one another’s backs in long, leg-drawn-up leaps as unbelievable and as floating as those one makes in a dream.
“That was a great shot,” Gonzales said. “They’re beautiful animals.”
“They’re pretty common. Are they worth-while pictures?” MacAlister asked.
“Excellent,” Gonzales told him. “You shoot like that and you’ll have one fine album.”
“Do you think we’ll find buffalo tomorrow?”
“There’s a good chance of it. They feed out early in the morning and with luck we may catch them in the open.”
“I’d like to erase the lion business,” MacAlister said. “It’s not pleasant to have your friend see you vomit over the side of the car and cry like a baby.”
I should think it would be even more unpleasant to do it, Gonzales thought, friend or no friend, or to talk about having done it. But he said, “I wouldn’t think about that any more. Any one could be upset by his first kill. That’s all over.”
But that night after dinner and a scotch on the rocks by the fire before going to bed, as Dennis MacAlister lay on his cot with the can of insect repellent beside him on the floor and listened to the night noises it was not all over. It was neither all over nor was it beginning. It was there exactly as it had happened with some parts of it indelibly emphasized and he was miserably ashamed at it. But more than shame he felt cold, hollow fear in him. The fear was still there like a cold slimy hollow in all the emptiness where once his confidence had been and it made him feel sick. It was still there with him now.
He fell asleep but awoke again when he heard the noise outside, a short distance from the tent. It was a tearing and munching sound and it got closer and closer until it seemed just outside the tent, and when Dennis MacAlister woke in the night to hear it he was afraid. He could hear D.J. breathing quietly, asleep. There was no one to tell he was afraid, nor to be afraid with him, and lying alone he knew he must get up and see what was outside the tent. He groped for the flashlight and turned it on and stepped outside and shined the light in the direction of the chomping noise until he could see the gray, hairless, scabby hulk of a buffalo bull, his neck a part of his shoulders and the shiny black of his horns glinting as he peered blank and expressionless into the circle of illumination cast by the flashlight.
“D.J.,” MacAlister yelled. “Get up! There’s a buffalo outside the tent.”
There was an audible groan from his companion but D.J. did not emerge from the tent. MacAlister called again but heard no response as the buffalo continued to eat in a wide swath at the edge of the tent. Dennis MacAlister did not think about what the buffalo was feeling or going to do, but only knew that his hands were shaking as tried to hold the flashlight steady on the old bull. MacAlister remembered the comments of Zach, their driver, that the buffalo was the most feared by the natives, the most dangerous, and had even been known to stalk humans and the next thing he knew he was running; running wildly, in panic through the muddy camp ground, in his underwear toward the Land Rover parked in the clearing in front of Sergio Gonzales’s tent. MacAlister climbed up on the hood of the car and placed his right hand on the windshield to stop the trembling as he tried in vain to shine the flashlight with his left hand back in the direction of his own tent and the plodding hugeness and sparsely haired hide, the wide-nostrilled muzzle of the grazing buffalo.
“Sergio! Zach! D.J.!” MacAlister called out. He heard the steady, drunken snoring of Sergio Gonzales coming from his tent a few feet away.
In the morning while they were eating breakfast by lantern light out in the dining tent, before the sun was up, when MacAlister was telling them that he had been awakened in the night by a grazing buffalo, it occurred to him that the animals traveled in herds.
“Sounds like you were dreaming,” Sergio Gonzales said, looking up from his fried eggs and toast.
“Was he close?” D.J. said, taking a sip of coffee.
“Right outside the tent.”
“And you saw him?”
“I saw him with the flashlight.”
“Thanks for waking me,” D.J. said.
Before MacAlister could continue, a lion roared and Dennis thought he was just at the edge of the camp.
“Sounds like an old-timer,” Zach the driver said. “A mile or so away.”
“Does his roaring carry that far?” MacAlister said.
“It carries a long way,” Zach said.
“Are we going out after him?” D.J. said.
“As soon as we finish our breakfasts. And how did you sleep?” Gonzales said to D.J.
“I had a fabulous night,” he said. “I’m psyched.”
“We’re going to get great shots of him,” Gonzales said. “I have to go back to my tent before we leave.” Gonzales stood. The lion roared again.
“Noisy critter,” Gonzales said.
“What’s the matter, Dennis?” his lover asked him.
“Nothing,” MacAlister said.
“Yes, there is,” he said. “What are you upset about?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Tell me,” D.J. looked at him. “Don’t you feel well?”
“It’s these damned noises. And the buffalo last night.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?” D.J. asked. “I’d love to have seen it.”
“I tried,” MacAlister said, miserably.
“These animals are why we’re out here, aren’t they?”
“Yes. But hearing them gets on my nerves.”
“Well then, as Sergio said, we’ll just have to get more great photographs.”
“Yes, sweetheart,” said Dennis MacAlister. “It sounds simple, doesn’t it?”
“You’re not getting sick are you? You sound congested.”
“I don’t know, but I didn’t sleep well.”
“We’ll take some pictures, then you’ll feel better.”
“Finish your breakfast so we can go.”
“The sun’s not even up,” D.J. said. “This is a ridiculous hour.”
Just then the lion roared in a deep-chested moaning, suddenly guttural, ascending vibration that shook the air and ended in a sigh and a heavy deep-chested grunt.
“He sounds almost here,” D.J. said.
“Jesus,” said MacAlister. “I hate that damned noise.”
“Awesome. It’s terrifying.”
Sergio Gonzales came up then carrying his ostentatious telephoto-lensed Nikon F-6 and grinning.
“Come on,” he said. “Zach has everything in the car. Do you have plenty of film?”
“I’m ready,” said D.J.
“Let’s go get them,” Gonzales said. “You get in front. D.J. can sit back here with me.”
They climbed in the Land Rover and, in the gray, first daylight, moved off up the river through the trees. MacAlister opened a canister of film and dropped it into his opened camera. He saw his hand was trembling. He felt in the pocket of his down-filled vest for more film and moved his fingers over the plastic containers to count them. He turned back to where Gonzales sat in the back beside his lover, them both grinning with excitement, and Gonzales leaned forward and whispered,
“See the birds dropping. Zach said that means a lion has left a kill.”
On the far bank of the stream MacAlister could see, above the trees, vultures circling and plummeting down.
“We’ll probably see him soon,” Gonzales said. “Keep an eye out.”
They were driving slowly along the high bank of a stream which here cut deeply to its boulder-filled bed, and they wound in and out through the big trees as they drove. MacAlister was watching the opposite bank when he felt Gonzales take hold of his arm. The car stopped.
“Over there,” he heard Gonzales whisper. “Ahead and to the left.”
MacAlister had not been looking for an elephant. Standing in a clearing of lush grass, at the edge of a range of thorny, scrubby vegetation, the enormous pachyderm looked up from his feast and considered the intruders.
“How far is he?” asked MacAlister, raising his camera.
“About seventy-five yards. Let’s get out to shoot.”
“What? Let’s shoot from here.”
“Anyone can take pictures from cars,” he heard Gonzales saying in his ear. “Let’s get out. He’s not going to stay there all day.”
MacAlister looked back and saw Gonzales put the vial first to his right and then to his left nostril before stepping onto the running board of the Land Rover and down onto the ground.
The elephant still stood looking, imperial and cool, toward this object that his eyes only showed in silhouette, bulking like some super-rhino. There was no man smell carried toward him yet and he watched the object, not afraid, moving his great trunk from side to side.
Gonzales crouched, camera poised, and moved steadily ahead in the grass and closer to the grazing giant. Zach the driver had a worried look, knowing that he would lose his license if word got out in Arusha that he had allowed a client to do such a thing, but he said nothing because Gonzales had already shown himself to be an extravagant tipper.
MacAlister glanced back at D.J., who was watching Gonzales and smiling, and then he stood. He only knew his hands were shaking and it was impossible now for him to make his legs move. They were stiff in the thighs, but he could feel the muscles fluttering. He raised the camera, sighted on the elephant’s head and pressed the shutter button. Nothing happened though he held his finger down until he thought it would cramp. Then he knew he had the lock on and as he lowered the camera to unlock it, he shifted his weight from leg to leg to stimulate his circulation.
Gonzales was within thirty yards of the beast now, moving his camera rapidly from a horizontal to vertical format and back again, clicking off a succession of close-range shots. MacAlister could hear the ca-shing-shing! ca-shing-shing! of Gonzales’s powerful camera, and then as the red-faced man reached in his equipment bag and pulled out a second lens the elephant began to wave his great ears forward and back and forward again. Then he raised his wrinkled hairy trunk into the air and trumpeted a warning.
Suddenly the animal was moving toward Gonzales and the car in a steady trot and Gonzales shot to his feet and wheeled around and ran with all his authority toward the safety of the Land Rover.
Zach the driver wore a grim expression as he put the car into reverse and turned around to get back onto the road to prepare for their getaway as Gonzales and the elephant, both in a gallop now, advanced toward the car.
“Hurry, Sergio!” D.J. whooped, jumping up and down.
MacAlister stood in the front of the car, twisted around to watch, as the heavy man and heavier animal thundered toward them. The car began to move, slowly at first, and then faster as Gonzales reached out to take D.J.’s outstretched arm. The thick legs of the red-faced man pounded the earth, sending up clouds of dust as he ran out of the thick grass and onto the worn ruts of the packed, dirt road. With a burst of speed, the hulking elephant a mere ten feet behind, Gonzales reached D.J.’s hand and jumped onto the running board.
“Bwana!” Zach the driver yelled, gleefully, as he pressed the accelerator to the floor. “Bwana!”
Their vehicle gained speed and momentum until at last the pursuing elephant was lost in the clouded, red dusty wake of their escape. Then they went down the steep bank and across the stream, climbing over and around the boulders and up the other bank, pulling up by some projecting roots, and along it until they found a place to stop and contemplate their next move.
“Hell of an elephant,” Gonzales said cheerfully.
“Yes,” MacAlister said.
Sergio Gonzales, whose entire preoccupation had been with the elephant and the photo opportunity he presented, and who had not been thinking about MacAlister except to note that he was usually rather windier, suddenly noticed the stain at his crotch when the thin man stood to get out of the car and stretch. It could merely be perspiration, of course, though Gonzales inexplicably felt as though he had opened the door and seen something shameful.
“Did you get pictures of me with the elephant in the foreground?” Gonzales asked.
“No,” MacAlister said.
That was all anyone said for a while. MacAlister’s lover did not look at him nor he at D.J. as they stood side-by-side next to the car in the shade of an Acacia with Gonzales watching them from a few feet away. When Zach the driver walked away from the group and into the distance to survey the area and was momentarily obstructed from view by the car, D.J. stepped forward and raised his right hand, palm towards Gonzales, and said, “Give me five.”
Gonzales slapped the palm enthusiastically and the moment he dropped his arm, the boy moved even closer and leaned hard against him with the full weight of his tight, muscled body and kissed him, a sustained and solid kiss on the lips that seemed infinite in its duration.
“Well,” said Gonzales, going darker than his natural baked color.
“Mr. Sergio Gonzales,” D.J. said. “The brave and red-faced Mr. Sergio Gonzales.”
Then he stood beside MacAlister again and looked away across the stream and no one said anything more until they were back in camp.
That was the story of the elephant. MacAlister did not know how Gonzales had felt before the animal had started its rush, nor during it when the unbelievable rapid clicking of the camera had framed him against the backdrop of brush, nor what kept him coming when Gonzales turned to flee. MacAlister did not know how Gonzales felt about things either. He did not know how his lover felt except that the boy was through with him.
His lover had been through with him before but it never lasted. He was financially secure and knew he would not leave him ever now. That was one of the few things he really knew. He knew about that, about collecting butterflies – that was the earliest – about interior decorating, about real estate, commercial and residential, about homosexuality in psychology books, about word games and cards, about dogs, a little on horses, about holding onto his money, about most of the other things his world dealt in, and about his lover not leaving him. His lover was a beauty, but he was not a great enough beauty to be able to leave him and better himself and he knew it and MacAlister knew it. D.J. had missed the chance to leave him and he knew it. If MacAlister had been better with men, D.J. would probably have started to worry about him getting another new, beautiful boyfriend, but he knew too much about him to worry about him either. Also, MacAlister had always had a great tolerance, which seemed the nicest thing about him if it were not the most sincere.
All in all they were known as a comparatively happy gay couple, one whose disruption is often rumored but never occurs, and as one Los Angeles gay celebrity put it, they were making yet another romantic excursion into an exotic part of the world to harden the cement of their much envied and ever-enduring relationship. This same celebrity had reported them on the verge at least three times in the past and they had been. But they always made up. They had a sound basis of union. D.J. was too gorgeous for MacAlister to leave him, and MacAlister had too much security for D.J. to ever leave him.
It was three o’clock in the morning and Dennis MacAlister, who had been asleep a little while after he had stopped thinking about the elephant, wakened and then slept again, woke suddenly, frightened in a dream of a bloody-mouthed lion tearing into a zebra carcass, and listened while his heart pounded. His sheets were drenched, his nasal passages clogged, and when he sat up his head spun with the realization that his lover was not in the other cot in the tent. He lay awake with that knowledge for hours. At the end of that time D.J. came into the tent, lifted his mosquito netting and crawled into bed.
“Where have you been?” MacAlister asked in the darkness.
“Oh, hi,” he said. “Are you awake?”
“Where have you been?”
“I just went out to get a breath of air.”
“You did, like hell.”
“What do you want me to say, sweetheart?”
“Where have you been?”
“Out to get a breath of air.”
“That’s a new name for it. You are a bitch.”
“Well, you’re a coward.”
“All right,” he said. “What of it?”
“Nothing as far as I’m concerned. But please let’s not talk, babe, because I’m sleepy.”
“You think that I’ll take anything.”
“I know you will, love.”
“Well, I won’t.”
“Please let’s not talk. I’m tired.”
“There wasn’t going to be any of that. You promised there wouldn’t be.”
“Well, there is now,” D.J. said sweetly.
“You said that if we made this trip that there would be none of that. You promised.”
“Yes, that’s the way I meant it to be. But the trip was spoiled. You’re a bore. He knows how to have fun. Do we have to talk about it?”
“You don’t wait long when you have the opportunity.”
“Let’s not talk. I’m sleepy.”
“I’m going to talk.”
“Don’t mind me then, because I’m going to sleep.” And he did.
At breakfast they were all three at the table before daylight and Dennis MacAlister found, that of all the many men he had hated, he hated Sergio Gonzales the most.
“Sleep well?” Gonzales asked, his golden-throated voice filling the air.
“Like a gorged lion,” the broadcaster told him.
You bastard, thought MacAlister, you insolent bastard.
So he woke him when he came in, Gonzales thought, looking at them both with his flat, cold eyes. Well, why doesn’t he keep his boyfriend where he belongs? What does he think I am, a fucking angel? Let him keep him where he belongs. It’s his own fault.
“We still haven’t seen a leopard,” D.J. said, pushing away a plate of greasy bacon.
“I think I may have a temperature,” MacAlister said.
“We may see one today,” Gonzales said and smiled at D.J. “Why don’t you stay in camp?”
“Not for anything,” MacAlister told him.
“Order him to stay in bed,” Gonzales said to D.J.
“Order me?” said MacAlister coldly.
“Let’s not have any ordering, nor,” turning to MacAlister, “any stubbornness, Dennis,” D.J. said quite pleasantly.
“Is Zach ready to start?” MacAlister asked.
“Any time,” Gonzales told him. “Do you think you should go with a fever?”
“What do you care?” MacAlister said.
The hell with him, thought Sergio Gonzales. The fucking hell with him. So this is what it’s going to be like.
“I don’t care,” he said.
“Sure, you two go out and look for leopards. I’ll stay in camp out of your way,” MacAlister said bitterly.
“You’re talking trash,” said Gonzales.
“I’m not talking trash. I’m disgusted.”
“Dennis, try to behave,” his lover said.
“I do behave,” MacAlister said. “Did you ever eat such filthy food?”
“Something wrong with the food?” Gonzales said quietly.
“No more than with everything else.
“Get a grip, buddy,” Gonzales said very quietly. “These boys do speak English, you know.”
Gonzales stood up and putting some kind of pill in his mouth strolled away, speaking a few words to Zach who was waiting a short distance away. MacAlister and his boyfriend sat on at the table. MacAlister was staring at his coffee cup.
“If you don’t drop it, I’ll leave you, sweetheart,” D.J. said quietly.
“No, you won’t.”
“Try me and see.
“No,” D.J. said. “I won’t leave and you’ll shut up.”
“Shut up? That’s nice. Shut up.”
“Yes. Behave yourself.”
“Why don’t you try behaving?”
“I have, for too long.”
“I hate that red-faced buffalo,” MacAlister said. “I loathe the sight of him.”
“He’s really very nice.”
“Oh, shut the fuck up,” MacAlister almost shouted. Just then the car came up and stopped in front of the dining tent. Gonzales walked over and looked at the man and his boyfriend.
“Going or staying?” he said.
“Going,” said MacAlister, standing up. “Going.”
“Better bring a sweatshirt. It will be cool in the car,” Gonzales said.
“I’ll get my leather jacket,” D.J. said.
“Zach has it,” Gonzales told him. He climbed in front with Zach and Dennis MacAlister and his boyfriend sat, not speaking, in the back seat.
Hope the silly queen doesn’t stick a nail file in my neck, Gonzales thought to himself. Homosexuals really are a nuisance.
The car was grinding down to cross the river at a pebbly ford in the gray daylight and then climbed, angling up the steep bank, to a park-like wooded rolling country on the far side.
It was a good morning, Gonzales thought. The dew was heavy as the wheels went through the grass and low bush, and he smelled the odor of crushed ferns. He liked this early morning smell of the dewy, crushed vegetation and the look of the tree trunks showing black through the morning mist, as the car made its way through the country. He had put the two in the back seat out of his mind now and was watching for leopards. Zach had confidence that they would have a good chance of spotting one in this area. Gonzales did not want to be on vacation with MacAlister, though he had hooked up with some rare ones in his times alone on holiday. If they got through today there was only Friday to go and he would be rid of these two and things might pick up. He’d have nothing more to do with the boyfriend and MacAlister would get over it. He must have gone through plenty of that before. Poor sucker. He must have a way of getting over it. Well, it was the queen’s own fault after all.
He, Sergio Gonzales, carried a virtual pharmacy on holiday to accommodate any windfalls he might receive. He had always taken exotic vacations and quite frequently met up with a certain type of traveler, the international, fast, sporting set, and at times he’d even been able to bed a man’s curious and party-minded wife. He despised these women, more even than he despised this D.J. fellow, but he was courteous, a gentleman, open to whatever opportunity presented itself.
This MacAlister was an odd one though. Damned if he wasn’t. And the lover. Well, the lover. Yes, the lover. Hmm, the lover. Well, he’d dropped all that. He looked around at them. MacAlister sat slumped against the door, looking grim and weak. D.J. smiled at him. He looked younger today, more innocent and fresher and not posturing for attention. What’s in his heart God knows, Gonzales thought. He hadn’t talked much last night. At that it was a pleasure to see him.
The Rover was traveling at about thirty-five miles an hour across the open and MacAlister slid lower and lower until his throbbing head rested uncomfortably on the seat back. Dust blew in off the plains, causing him to shake in fits of explosive coughing that increased in frequency and duration until he pulled a bandana from his pocket and tied it around his head to cover his mouth and throat. He could no longer breathe except through his mouth and his clothes already were soaked in perspiration.
Zach the driver maneuvered the car slowly, avoiding the wart-hog holes and the mud castles the termites had built, and had already seen the leopard when D.J. suddenly looked across the opening and said,
“Oh, my God, there’s one!
And opening his eyes to look where he pointed, while the car lurched forward, MacAlister saw first the bloody zebra carcass on a low horizontal limb of a gnarled thorny tree and then on a branch to the right about four feet higher the outstretched body of a young spotted leopard.
“What a beauty,” Gonzales said. “Get your telephoto and start shooting.
MacAlister managed to stand despite the searing pain that radiated from his temples and the urge to evacuate his bowels, which grew steadily more insistent. He was raising his camera when D.J. shouted, “Not from the car, asshole!” and he had no love, only contempt for D.J., when the brakes clamped on and the car skidded, plowing sideways to a stop no more than thirty yards from the tree, and he grappled with the door handle and stumbled onto the grassy ground, and then he was firing off pictures of the tree-lounging leopard and his half-finished zebra kill, finally remembering to cradle his camera in his left palm so that he could adjust the focus of the lens and apply precise yet slight pressure to the shutter release button with the index finger of his right hand to confirm that he had all the settings in the proper range before he shot his prey.
“Get pictures of the carcass,” Gonzales said. “Now you’re shooting!”
They were behind him in the car and MacAlister was reloading his camera, dropping film canisters onto the ground, and time was all but erased from his awareness as he continued to shoot pictures from every possible angle and stance. He was almost directly under the beast, who was now looking directly at him and not the car, when Dennis MacAlister exhausted his supply of film and turned to make his way back to the safety of the Land Rover.
“All right,” Gonzales said. “Nice work. That’s the leopard.”
MacAlister felt a drunken elation. He had expected the feeling he had had about the buffalo to come back but it did not. For the first time in his life he felt completely without fear.
“How many rolls did you shoot?” he asked.
“Just one,” Gonzales said. “You nailed this one. I saw you load at least three times. You didn’t need me this time. I was just mopping up a little. You shot like a pro.
“Let’s have a drink,” said Gonzales.
“But I have to attend to something first,” MacAlister said. He took a roll of toilet paper from his camera bag and ran away from the car in the tall dry grass to a spot covered in scrubby vegetation and he managed barely to unzip his trousers and squat in the brush before he expelled his abundant load in a violent and tumultuous discharge that so strained his anatomy that he nearly lost consciousness. He stood to pull on his pants then squatted again to answer the call. He evacuated again and stood and then crouched for a third time over the parched ground and listened to ca-whoosh and splat as the now barely brown liquid spilled out of his intestines.
He walked back to the car, his head spinning from fever and triumph. In his life he had never felt so sick, and yet so good. Let’s get that drink,” said MacAlister to Gonzales.
In the car, MacAlister’s lover sat very white-faced. “That was excellent, sweetheart,” he said to MacAlister. “What a trip.”
“Did he frighten you?” Gonzales asked.
“It was tense. I can’t remember being so tense.”
“Let’s all have a drink,” MacAlister said.
“Absolutely,” said Gonzales. “Give it to D.J.” He drank the neat whiskey from the flask and shuddered a little when he swallowed. He handed the flask to MacAlister who dropped it and had to retrieve it from the floor of the Land Rover before he could hand it over to Gonzales.
“It was exciting,” MacAlister said. “But it’s given me a hateful headache.
“We must be careful about getting out of the car,” Zach the driver said. “It is forbidden.”
“No one got out of the car,” said Gonzales, smiling and winking at him.
“Let me see the film,” D.J. said to MacAlister.
“Why?” MacAlister said.
“I want to see,” D.J. said, extending his left hand with the palm up.
MacAlister reached into his jacket pocket and removed the rolls of film and placed them in D.J.’s hand.
“You know I don’t think I’ll ever be afraid of anything again,” MacAlister said to Gonzales. “Something happened in me after I saw the leopard. The closer I got the more I felt the adrenalin pumping.
“Cleans out your system,” said Gonzales. “No pun intended. Funny things happen to people. ”
MacAlister’s face was shining with perspiration. “You know something did happen to me,” he said. “I feel absolutely different.”
D.J. said nothing and looked at the film strangely. He was sitting far back in the seat and MacAlister was sitting forward talking to Gonzales who turned sideways talking over the back of the front seat.
Gonzales had seen men come of age before and it always moved him. It was not a matter of their twenty-first birthday. It had taken a strange chance of a photo-opportunity, a sudden precipitation into action without opportunity for worrying beforehand, to bring this about with MacAlister, but regardless of how it had happened it had most certainly happened. Look at the old queen now, Gonzales thought. Some of them stay girls all their lives. Their figures stay boyish when they’re fifty. Strange creatures. Probably meant a change for his little boyfriend too. Well, that would be a damned good thing. This man’s probably been afraid all his life. Don’t know what started it. But it’s over now. His fear excised like a tumor.
From the far corner of the seat D.J. looked at the two of them. There was no change in Gonzales. He saw Gonzales as he had seen him the day before when he realized what he had to do to manipulate him. But he saw the change in Dennis MacAlister now.
“I’m so happy and tired I could sleep for days,” said MacAlister.
“You’re celebrating a little too much, if you ask me,” D.J. said.
“How so?” said Gonzales.
“Obviously you don’t know how we feel. So why don’t you keep out of it?” MacAlister said.
“You’ve gotten awfully brave, all of a sudden,” his lover said, contemptuously, though his contempt was not secure. He was afraid of something.
MacAlister laughed and then began to cough. He felt lightening-like bolts of pain in his chest and ribs and his vision began to blur. “I am brave,” said MacAlister, when he finally stopped choking. He leaned outside the car window and vomited a bit of the celebratory liquor he had drunk with Gonzales and D.J.
When MacAlister sat back down inside the car, D.J. suddenly hurled the rolls of film at his lover’s chest. “It’s all black and white, you fuckup,” said D.J. “You didn’t even get a single color shot. We won’t even be able to see the leopard or the zebra when we develop these. They’re worthless. Worthless. Just like you. What a fuckup!”
“Screw you,” said MacAlister and he searched for the camera bag and took out two rolls of color film and began to load his camera. “I’m not afraid of that leopard. He’s not hungry.”
“Worst he can do is kill you,” D.J. said. “‘By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next.’ Shakespeare.”
MacAlister fell against the door and recovered his balance and pushed down on the handle and stepped shakily down onto the ground. He had loaded the camera with a Fuji film known for its garish and outlandish color and planned to snap off a simple roll or two to shut up his bitchy companion once and for all.
“Don’t try anything fancy,” Gonzales called after him. “Take some easy shots and get back here.” Zach the driver started the car’s engine and put a finger in his mouth.
MacAlister crept forward in the dry grass. He was sweating heavily now but managed to constrain his coughing as moved to within ten feet of the tree where the leopard lay on his side on the branch with his hanging tail switching the air. MacAlister aimed the camera.
The big cat lay at attention now, flattened out on his stomach and not his side, on the thick limb. His ears were back but still his only movement was the slight twitching of his white-tipped, spotted tail. He looked down at the man advancing on him; his big yellow eyes, narrowed with hate, blinked only when flies buzzed around his face and his claws dug into the rough bark of his resting place. He could hear the man talking and he waited for him to bring the clicking thing closer, his tail stiffening and twitching harder up and down in readiness. He made a coughing grunt and fell from the tree onto the man and the clicking thing.
MacAlister screamed as the wicked eyes and heavy engorged body came down on him and when the sharp white teeth sunk into his neck all Dennis MacAlister felt was a sudden white-hot explosion inside his head.
Zach the driver started the engine and drove toward the cat, honking the car horn wildly as Sergio Gonzales yelled and slapped the side metal of the car and D.J. screamed in terror at the sight of blood squirting from his lover’s neck and head. The enraged leopard gripped the head with his front claws and snapped the spine at the base of the man’s neck with his jaws and he raked his hind claws through the stiff outer skin of his enemy who had wielded the black thing, until he had exposed the guts of the inert body and silenced the clicking, then suddenly aware of the advancing machine and the yelling members of the man’s herd he released his hold on the carcass and ran into the safety of the brush.
Dennis MacAlister lay now, face down, not two yards from where the truck had slid to a halt and his lover knelt over him with Gonzales beside him. Zach the driver was on the phone talking excitedly in Swahili to the base.
“I wouldn’t turn him over,” Gonzales said.
The boy was crying hysterically.
“I’d get back in the car,” Gonzales said. “Where’s his camera?”
D.J. shook his head, his face contorted.
“Leave him like he is till they can get here to investigate the accident.”
He knelt down, took a handkerchief from his pocket, and spread it over Dennis MacAlister’s blond, bloody head where it lay. The blood sank into the loose earth.
Gonzales stood up and said,
“Hell of a leopard,” his brain registered automatically. Then he went over to the car where D.J. sat crying in the corner.
“That was a sweet thing to do,” he said in a toneless voice. “He would have left you too.”
“Stop it,” D.J. said.
“Of course it was an accident,” he said. “I know that you didn’t think about what might happen.”
“Stop it,” D.J. said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “There will be a certain amount of unpleasantness but the photographs will be very useful at the hearing. He simply leaped from the car; you didn’t push him. Zach will testify to that. You’re perfectly all right.”
“Stop it,” D.J. said.
“There’s a hell of a lot to be done,” he said. “We’ll have to get back to Arusha. Why didn’t you poison him? That’s what they do in Hollywood, isn’t it?”
“Stop it. Stop it. Stop it,” the boy cried.
Gonzales looked at him with his flat black eyes.
“I’m through now,” he said. “I was a little angry. I’d begun to like your friend.”
“Please stop it,” D.J. said. “Please stop it.”
“That’s better,” Gonzales said. “Please is much better. Now I’ll stop.”
As a longtime reader of Hemingway, I have often observed a certain gender confusion in his characters that goes against stereotype. On first reading “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the story seemed almost like satire to me, and I found the characters ironically “translatable.“ I was in fact reminded of people I had known in the promiscuous and drug infused time of the 1980’s. The idea occurred to translate the story: to make the characters overtly gay in the more contemporary setting of a camera safari. And since I had worked with the writer / teacher Reginald Gibbons who showed how one could better understand a writer by simply making one’s own writing conform to the sentence length and syntax of the writer in question (he used the Australian Nobel laureate, writer Patrick White, as an example) I started my translation of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” with his teaching in mind. Once I had started writing, the story unfolded with relative ease.
Ronald Alexander's fiction has appeared in publications including The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Review, Confrontation, and Chicago Tribune. His essay "Survivor's Guilt " was published by Chattahoochee Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program in Los Angeles and currently lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and is at work on a new novel.
Original Artwork by Brooklyn based artist Krissa Saldaña.